My friend Spacemom married a Jewish man and agreed to raise their family in the Jewish faith. So you can imagine this is a hard time of year for the Space Family. I get the feeling that Spacemom doesn’t miss Christmas; I always wonder in these situations how closely this correlates with one’s childhood memories of the season. But of course it’s about her children, growing up in a society where Christmas is the national version of this holiday season, and where rampant commercialism adds to the fervor for kids, so that it’s hard to imagine any Jewish child not feeling as though they are being given a raw deal at this time of year. A recent post about her frustrations with her country’s seeming determination to push Christmas down the throats of everybody apparently brought on a slew of nasty emails and this has ensued more discussion which stimulated me to post my thoughts on the subject.
Who owns Christmas?
There was a sentiment among Spacemom’s readers that Christmas cannot be called a non-secular holiday. Perhaps I’m misconstruing the context in which these comments were made, but I disagree that Christmas cannot be secular. I’m baffled, actually, considering that you often see Christians sporting buttons and bumper stickers saying “Keep the Christ in Christmas”, etc. – apparently they aren’t secure in it being a purely Christian holiday themselves. Perhaps one’s perception depends on where you live and how pushy and vocal the local Christian population is (truly there is no other sort of Christian like the fundamentalist version they breed in parts of the USA).
I grew up with Christmas, and while I was raised Catholic the parts of Christmas that were most special to me had nothing to do with Jesus. When DH and I started a family we sought to establish our own meanings and traditions to this season. DH had flirted with the idea of converting to Judaism and so, in an attempt to be supportive, I agreed to forgo Christmas one year in favour of Hannukah (we were living far from home and DD was only 18 months old so it seemed a good time to experiment). DH made latkes and donuts, he made a menorah, and we lit it each night of the season. We read the Hannukah Story to DD (though I could never bring myself to say that the oil burning for several days was a “miracle”; more like a fortuitous miscalculation). Anyways, DH tried his little heart out to make a nice holiday for our family…
It was the most depressing winter of my life and I almost had a breakdown by the end of it all.
DH decided against the conversion and I happily planned our next Christmas. It was good to have reason to examine which parts of Christmas were important to me, and what they symbolized for me:
The Tree: I insist on a real one because to me it’s about nature and a fake tree just screams commercialism, plastic, and well…being fake. The evergreen symbolizes that winter is not a “dead” time for Nature. The smell of pine fills the room and I love it.
The Lights: we hang lights around the balcony railings, and across the mantel. We light the tree and hang decorations upon it. To grasp the symbolism of these things imagine the time before we had electricity. Imagine a snowy village in a northern clime where it’s dark early and the sun doesn’t rise until late the next morning. Now imagine that houses in the village are decorated with candles, and the trees are decorated with lanterns, and perhaps suet for the local wildlife, and perhaps ribbons or other pretty things. Now imagine this light reflected in the snow and think how beautiful that must look. Isn’t it obvious that the lights are a way of bringing joy and warmth to the long darkness of winter? Even now, in our cities of streetlights and power generators you cannot imagine how lovely our neighbourhood looks at night (and night begins at 4:30 pm these days) with the colourful lights around trees, railings, and seen through windows. As I stare out across this scene I think how dreary and depressing it would be if we had to go all winter without that. Why would anybody *not* want those lights? My one guess in this matter is that, since the origins of the Jewish faith took root in a place of deserts and near-equatorial climate perhaps there was never any need for this remedy against SAD.
When the Spacemom commented to her child that they couldn’t light the lights because that had some meaning to it (which, apparently, went against their Jewish teachings? not sure) I was confused. Would it really be against the Jewish faith to put up some lights? Why do they have to be about Christianity? Why can’t it just be about bringing some light and cheer and joy to the darkness? Lord knows there is nothing “Christian” about Christmas lights; as much as the Christians like to think they own the holiday, they stole most of it from the pagans.
I admit it, I feel bad for the Jewish kids and then I feel guilty for feeling this way. No matter how hard the parents try to put a good spin on it, many kids are still convinced that they are missing out on something special; whether you think they are or not doesn’t change how they feel. It’s like the kid at the birthday party with sugar allergies – no matter how yummy his sugar-free, naturally sweetened, carrot thingy looks…it ain’t chocolate cake and everybody knows it! There’s just something about Christmas that really appeals to young children, and it’s obviously not just the presents since we all know about the “eight crazy nights” of them (thank you, Adam Sandler). I think it’s about the magic – waking up to a house lit with the faint glow of lights from the tree; the magical quality of a neighbourhood lit up with outdoor lights; and of course the magical story of Santa and the excuse to believe in something fairytale-ish while one is still capable of fully suspending one’s disbelief. None of these things need be religious in any way, and I guess I don’t get why Jewish families feel they can’t incorporate any of these ideas into the season without somehow betraying their own religion for another.
When families make a choice to raise kids Jewish in a culture that worships Christmas, they know that no matter how much they explain it, no matter what spin they put on it, the young children are going to feel gypped. They are going to look longingly at Christmas trees in their neighbour’s windows and wish, even for a moment, that they weren’t Jewish. I’m not saying this is right, and certainly society struggles with how to make the season more inclusive (as they should). But ultimately the parents chose this for their children – the children did not get to choose. And I just don’t get why they can’t even hang a few lights around the house (*if they want to*) without feeling like they are being untrue to their faith?
To end this post on a lighter note, check out this parody of the PC vs. Mac commercials called “Chanukah Vs. Christmas”: